Guest Post: Charlotte Fear presents Sleepovers at Pendennis Castle

Today’s guest post comes from Charlotte Fear, Event Manager South West for English Heritage, who explains the planning that goes into the sleepover events she coordinates at Pendennis Castle in Cornwall.

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I always enjoy telling my friends, family and colleagues about my sleepover events at Pendennis Castle.  It’s amusing to see the range of reactions from people.  The overwhelming response is “WOW, that sounds amazing!” shortly followed by, “But where will they sleep?” and “Won’t it be cold?”

Indeed, there are lots of questions raised and lots to consider when planning this kind of event!  Let me start by outlining what our sleepover events are about, and what guests can expect.

Three children in dark corridor of castle

Visitors explore Pendennis Castle, lit by lanterns (c) English Heritage

We offer two types of sleepover events – one for adults only (16+) and one for families (children 8+). Our recent family sleepover was the first kind of this event ever to be held at Pendennis Castle – and the first time people had slept over in the Castle Keep for many centuries.

Making use of the space

The event takes place in the magnificent historic Keep.  Set up in the large ground floor room are canvas camp beds where people will sleep, and next door to this an adjoining room with a fireplace where people will gather at the start of the evening and where supper will be served.

Two children in sleeping bags on camp beds in a castle

Camp beds set up in Pendennis Castle (c) English Heritage

We offer two slightly different experiences for the adult and family events, but both will include supper and breakfast, a twilight tour and storytelling round the fire.  For families, we offer interactive activities including a soldier’s drill game, which always promises a lot of laughs for children and adults alike!

Planning – ask for help!

So, where to start with planning? As with any event, this is key and even more so with planning a sleepover.  Attention to detail is everything.  From heating to eating to sleeping, it all needs to be thought about and carefully planned.

I ensured that I consulted with all the relevant parties when planning my sleepover – both colleagues from various departments in the organisation and others who had held similar events at other venues.

This knowledge helped me to compile my ‘to do’ list, and broke down everything I needed to think about including all health and safety aspects of the event, catering, structuring the event and deciding what activities to offer, staffing – the list goes on and on!

First impressions matter

Once everything is in place, guests arrive.  What happens then?  For me, this is one of the most important aspects of this kind of event – the welcome, and first impressions.  No doubt, people have been gearing up to this event for several weeks, they’re excited and they can’t wait to see what’s going to happen.

From the very moment they arrive the ‘experience’ begins.  We help to create this by floodlighting the Keep (which looks fantastic at night), and having a historical character hosting the evening and welcoming our guests. The host is an essential part of the event, helping to break the ice and put people at ease.

The real impression can be made, however, when they enter the Keep itself – the building where everyone will sleep and where we serve supper.  We light the fire and place church candles round the room, and welcome our guests with warm punch and nibbles.

Good food and drink make a difference

The food you’ll offer is another really important part of the event to consider, and something people always remember about their experience.  We offer home-made beef bourguignon followed by sticky toffee pudding with Cornish clotted cream for supper, which always goes down a treat!

Don’t forget also that the evening meal is just one part of the experience – hot chocolate round the fire and a traditional cooked breakfast in the morning are also part of the offering and always well received.

Visitor information

Another important point to be aware of is to keep your guests informed as much as possible when holding a sleepover event. I’ve discovered over the years that people generally like to know what’s going on – within reason!

Of course, we don’t want to give away too many surprises, but I found it useful to ensure that everyone was briefed at the start of the event about what was going to be happening and when.

This was also really important when people made a booking.  I compiled a ‘pre-event questionnaire’ which was sent out to all guests who booked places at the event, outlining everything they/we might need to know in advance, including:

  • what to pack
  • where they were sleeping (and the fact this would be in a communal area)
  • dietary requirements
  • washing facilities etc
Two children in sleeping bags with candles

Candles add to the atmosphere for overnight guests at Pendennis Castle (c) English Heritage

Define your marketing message

Following on from this, I would advise a similar approach with your event marketing too.  Identifying your market and the angle you are going to use to sell this event is essential.

Be clear with what you are offering as well – a lesson I learnt here perhaps was to have a more defined marketing message. Indeed, the event almost sells itself in the fact that it’s such a unique experience; however, I felt I could perhaps have taken advantage more of the spooky elements of the experience, and the potential for things to ‘go bump in the night’!

On the subject of lessons learnt and things to take forward for next time, I’d also say that there is room to add more authenticity to the experience.

We already include some aspects of this with our historical character who hosts the evening and the authentic-style goblets and wooden bowls we use to serve supper.  However, I think there’s room to build on this – costumed medieval staff being one idea possibly. Indeed, you could go all out here with authentic beds, food and even facilities!

However you decide to plan it, this is a truly special and unique experience.  This is our first year of running sleepover events and we look forward to building on the success with more events planned for later on in the year and across other English Heritage sites including Portland Castle, Belsay Hall and Kenilworth Castle.

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Thanks, Charlie!

If you’d like to write a guest post or case study for this blog about any aspect of event planning or marketing in arts or heritage venues, please drop me a line at rosie@culture24.org.uk or call me on 01273 623336.

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